Work in Progress

With the advent of its developmental lab The Dramaworkshop, Palm Beach Dramaworks has asserted its commitment to fostering new works of American theater. The West Palm Beach-based company launched The Dramaworkshop in Fall 2014 and spent its first season working on four plays, workshopping the material and then presenting staged readings. This season, The Dramaworkshop is presenting one of those plays, Jennifer Fawcett’s Buried Cities, as its first developmental production complete with sets, costumes, and lights.

Playwright Jennifer Fawcett

   An established playwright, Fawcett is the founder and co-artistic director of Working Group Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa. She describes Buried Cities—which revolves around the differing reactions an expectant couple has when they are held up in their home at gunpoint—as indicative of a certain moment in time in her own life. “It’s not autobiographical, it’s nothing that literal,” she says. “But it’s what’s in my mind even if I’m not aware of it until I have the characters speaking it.”

   The developmental production of Buried Cities will be onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks’ newly renovated Perlberg Studio Theatre from April 8-17. Below, Fawcett shares her thoughts about the play and the workshop process. What was your inspiration for Buried Cities?

Fawcett: A few years ago I was working on a piece of theater looking at gun ownership in America. There were a lot of different scenarios that we were playing with, but one of them was looking at a couple who is held up at gunpoint in their house and then have very, very different responses to that experience. That’s how this play starts. I wrote one or two scenes for that other play about that couple and sort of used those as an inspiration point for this piece. So it starts with them having just been held up at gunpoint and then kind of goes from there.

What stage was the work in when you submitted it for consideration?

Bill [Hayes, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ producing artistic director] asked me if there was a piece that I wanted to work on and I said yes. I had the first half of the play written. They brought me down here last May for a two-week workshop and I came down with the first half of the play written and ended up with the rest of the play written and also revised. It was a really intensive two weeks that we had in May. It was great. Two of the four actors are going to be in the production, which is also really good because there’s some continuity there.

What was the process like when you were here last May?

It was very private. We were working every day in the room with the actors and director and dramaturg, with no audience, just working around what we call table work. Just working, literally, around a table. And then we did a reading of it at the end of that which was just actors standing at music stands—so there was no blocking or anything—for an invited audience and had a talkback afterward. This time, it’s going to look more like a traditional theater rehearsal process where the actors will be up on their feet moving around, the director will be blocking, and we’ll be incorporating other technical elements as well.

As a playwright, how involved do you like to get with production design?

I’m interested in it and I’m involved in that they’re going off of what I put in the script. But otherwise I’m not going to tell the designer how to design the set or anything like that. What’s really interesting to me though is to see what they take from it. So they read the play, they listen in on the rehearsal, and then they create the design and that’s really fascinating for me to see what another artist does with the material I’ve created.

How do you feel seeing this piece come to life for the first time?

It is really exciting. It always makes me a bit nervous, as anything new does, but I’m really excited to see it. In a lot of ways with theater you have to have it up on its feet to really see what’s there. You need to see the actors, not just hearing the words but also seeing the actions. So this is a fantastic opportunity to let me see that. And then to see it with an audience in the room because I learn a tremendous amount watching the audience watch the play.

How do you think the audience feedback will shape what happens to the play after this process is done?

If I get a lot of the same questions then that may be telling me there’s something that isn’t as clear as it could be. I’m very interested in the conversation that comes. Not just questions but what people think of, what it reminds them of, what conclusions it brings them to. That’s really fascinating. And that can sometimes work its way into another revision. Sometimes people see things I didn’t realize were there. They point something out that could be something I bring out a little more. I imagine I will be impacted a little bit by what people say. I’m certainly interested to hear people’s thoughts. And also, like I said, not just to hear their thoughts but to watch them watch the show because you learn a lot by how people are engaging with the piece in the moment. Do they sit forward? Do they laugh? Are they engaged is a big question.

Why do you think a program like The Dramaworkshop can be so vital to the development of new works?

It is partially the amount of time they have been willing to give the development. That’s really a tremendous gift because it takes a lot of time to create. And then also putting the work on a stage in front of an audience, putting some of the production elements in place really helps you as a playwright see the play fully, more than just having actors sitting around a table or standing at music stands. You’re really, really seeing it. Theater is a visual medium in a lot of ways, not as much as film or television, but it lives in three dimensions. You need to see the work in three dimensions to be able to know if it’s working or not, if it’s doing what I want it to do, if it’s as effective as I want it to be.  

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